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“Anyone here want to cyber?”xxxxxxxxxx

If you’ve spent any time in a computer chat room, that come-hither query has no doubt slithered across your screen. It is, of course, an invitation to partake in some online lovin’.

To the uninitiated, computer sex might seem almost unfathomable, but the mechanics are really quite simple. Two people meet online, often in a chat room. Polite banter segues into pillow talk and then heads into even raunchier terrain. One zipper opens, then the other. Hands begin to slide south. A click here, a squeeze there, and consummation—of a sort—is theirs, without ever having touched, smelled, or seen one another. All that remains is to grab a tissue and log off.

Among the electronic lemmings whiling away lusty hours online are a growing number of married men and women. To them, sex via computer seems almost heaven-sent, a way to indulge extramarital fantasies without the accompanying guilt—the sexual equivalent of Olestra, if you will. As one cybersexer puts it, “If you plan never to meet the person, what is wrong with a little spice?”

The phenomenon is new enough that most moral abriters—media, religious, or academic—don’t really offer much in the way of guidance. But truth be told, extramarital cybersex has more in common with real-life adultery than with an evening of adult videos. Therapists, clergymen, and divorce lawyers report that cybersex is generating its share of marital carnage, and unlike other anonymous encounters, cybersex is interactive, and often spans hours, if not days—much like a flesh-and-blood fling.

But left to their own devices, cybersexers are generating more RPMs (rationalizations per minute) than a CD-ROM. For the inhibited and the unhappy, Internet intercourse is the perfect procrastination device. It yields enough emotional and physical distraction to help you put off (for now) dealing with the painful deficiencies of your offline love life, without any of those awkward moments associated with meeting new people. And it’s an especially popular route to the libido in Washington, which, after all, has more computers and Internet accounts per genita than anywhere else in the nation.

Sniff around online and you’ll find just about every type of person on the cybersex circuit: executives, weight watchers, prom queens, reprobates, small-dicked men, 14-year-olds, paraplegics, and the mail-room guy. They’re all looking for love, a conquest, or a hasty cyberlay.

Even though it’s tough to know whose mouse is doing what to whom, some traffic patterns are coming into focus. When Debbie Layton-Tholl, a doctoral candidate in psychology, reviewed responses to her online questionnaire on adultery recently, one remarkable fact caught her eye: Three-quarters of the respondents who admitted to having a cyberaffair were women. And a “good majority” of those women were housewives, leading her to dub them a “new population” of cheaters.

Isolation, housework, and the pressures of child-rearing seem to be significant factors pushing stay-at-home women online in pursuit of romantic adventure, but the biggest draw is doubtless the virtually unlimited pool of men.

A recent afternoon visit to an AOL chat room called “Married and Cheating” suggests that online loving is giving the soaps a run for their money. In a scene resembling girls’ night out at a local bar, a group of stay-at-home moms held a spirited public discussion on the topics closest to their hearts: their disappointing husbands, their plans to meet online paramours in the flesh, and their compulsive use of online services.

Monique: This is better than Days of Our Lives.

Wanda: Hell yeah, better than The Young and the Restless.

Lynnette: Sure is.

Monique: Haven’t watched since I found America Online.

Lynnette: Same here.

Monique: Just switched addictions.

Wanda: I don’t even eat.

Of course, not everyone seeking a partner online is a homemaker, or searching for an in-the-flesh assignation. Many people—single or committed, male or female—simply want to get off and then get on their way: They are looking for a digitial glory hole that has none of the messy externalities of a face-to-face encounter. Earl, a married male executive in his mid-40s who cybersexes partly for “tension relief,” changes online partners regularly. Otherwise, “[the women] start to get serious and want to meet, and I’m not really interested in actually meeting another partner.”

In April, America Online asked members whether cybersex constitutes stepping out. The results suggested a complete lack of moral consensus about computer sex outside of marriage. Those responding to the unscientific poll split their votes almost evenly between the three choices: “Cybersex is definitely cheating,” “It depends,” and “Cybersex is not cheating.” Cosmopolitan magazine recently asked its readers the same question and received a similarly confused response. Half the women and 61 percent of the men who responded said cybersex is not cheating.

It’s probably no surprise that cyberlovers themselves tend to think getting off online is no biggie. The same excuses come up over and over again: “It’s only typed words, not actual physical contact,” argues Theresa, 29 and married. Jefferson, a married Floridian, concurs: “An online relationship is really just flirting, that’s all.” Another married male says computer sex is like “satisfy[ing] an itch, without scratching.”

Apologists often liken cybersex to the use of pornographic literature or video. All three involve only masturbation, they say, not physical contact with another person. But commonalities like these hide subtler differences. Cybersex is dialogue, not monologue. While a pornography user focuses solely on his own arousal, a cybersexer also assumes responsibility for her partner’s. Not unlike a genuine sexual relationship, you might say.

And cyberlovers tend to invest more time in one another than your average phone sexer or porno reader. “Some guy can look at a video for half an hour, and boom, he’s finished,” says Pierre Lehu, ghostwriter for Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s syndicated advice column. (Note to Pierre: It doesn’t take even that long.) By contrast, Lehu says, many people “seem to spend hours and hours” mutually masturbating online.

You’ll also hear people say that cybersex is safe sex—as if safety-consciousness somehow makes cheating honorable, as if they’re doing their spouses some sort of grand favor by keeping their illicit romances digital.

Cybersexers are fond of claiming that a heightened libido benefits one’s spouse, too. “A little cybering keeps the spice in the bedroom,” types Renaldo. But Renaldo admits that his spouse wouldn’t be too thrilled by what she saw if she happened to glance over his shoulder at an inopportune moment. “If my wife heard me say [sexy] things to a cyberchick,” Renaldo adds, “she’d be hurt.”

A few men and women defend themselves simply by saying they just cyber occasionally. “Yeah,” jokes Dr. Judy Kuriansky, host of a syndicated radio show on relationships. “Well, I only see my mistress once in a while.”

In real life, of course, hotel bills and condom wrappers never let you forget you’ve had an affair. Online, you just give the zipper a yank, turn off the monitor, and walk upstairs to join your spouse in peaceful slumber. But it’s hardly the sleep of the just.

Extramarital cybersex can be as destructive as affairs of the flesh, says Daniel Bronstein, assistant Rabbi at a New Jersey synagogue. “You’re communicating with another person and you’re mutually masturbating,” he says. “Even though you’re not physically touching [him or her], you’ve brought another human being into your…sexual persona.

“It’s built into the human experience: You’re going to have sexual fantasies. The question is, what do you with them?” According to the third-generation rabbi, the ethical path is clear: “If you’re in a committed relationship, well, be in it or don’t.”

Kuriansky gives married callers the thumbs-up to have sex online only if their spouses consent to it. “As far as I’m concerned, the concept of affairs and cheating really has to do with [going] behind somebody else’s back,” she says. “If you tell your wife that you’re cybersex chatting with somebody online, then your wife is informed. If she does not object, you are, at that point, not cheating.”

But Dr. Judy scoffs at the oft-heard excuse that cybersex is purely fantasy. “That’s baloney,” she says. “We’re talking about another human being…reacting and relating to you, who has feelings and emotions and needs.”

It’s a high-risk gamble, says Lehu. (Dr. Ruth is overseas at the moment). “What Ruth will say is, ‘Forget whether it’s cheating or not. Just know that if you’re [doing] it, there’s a potential trap out there. You may get through the minefield fine, or your marriage could go down the tubes.’”

The real issue, says syndicated columnist Dan Savage, is loyalty of the heart and mind. “[My boyfriend and I] are exclusive around intimacy and love, but it’s fine with me if he’s not exclusive around jerking off. I think that in this respect, gay men are slightly more highly evolved.” Savage says cybersex is only a threat if it begins to replace your physical sex life, or if your partner decides to run away with someone he met online. “But I think that’s highly unlikely.”

Layton-Tholl begs to differ. “People are flying all over this country to screw someone they met online, every day,” she says.

There is enough chatter on the net about disintegrating marriages to suggest that Layton-Tholl is onto something. Onliners tell stories of separation, divorce, and even violence resulting from cyberaffairs. “My soon-to-be-ex-husband smashed my PC because he thought I had a boyfriend,” says Alison. Her husband underestimated her, though. She’d had several online lovers at the time.

Even with the ugly consequences, though, cybersex is here to stay. According to Savage, cybersex’s lure comes from the “merging” of two unrelated compulsions. “It’s kind of like video games meet your fantasy life,” he says. “[It’s as] if at the end of every game of Ms. Pacman, you had an orgasm.” (Miraculously, Savage avoided the term “joystick” while conveying his theory.)

Kuriansky’s interpretation of

the cybersex trend is a bit more prosaic. “People don’t want to have [offline] affairs now,” she argues. “They don’t have the time, the energy, or the money.” Besides, says Kuriansky, “there’s been so much bad publicity about affairs. Cybersex is a perfect out.”

In Rabbi Bronstein’s mind, cybersex is not so much a convenience as a casualty of the ongoing battle between technology and human values. “People are getting ever more alienated and are using technology to block contact, genuine contact, person to person,” Bronstein says. “Whether it’s fax machines, automated tellers, or e-mail, people…can’t face one another.” Instead, “[We] use this armor of technology to avoid responsibility, to hide behind. I think cybersex is a perfect example.”

The most direct explanation is probably the most accurate. People get online and have cybersex because it feels good. Cybersex fuses dialogue, seduction, and orgasm with the tantalizing possibility that an online meeting might lead to a flesh one. Plain vanilla masturbation nets only a solitary O.

Cybering may have escaped the disdain that old-fashioned affairs generate, but it’s interesting what a vigorous debate can accomplish. Victor, a single male, recently joined an online discussion group by saying that “cybering is harmless.” Less than two hours later, he had grudgingly changed his mind. “At first I just looked at it as physical action being cheating. I never considered that feelings [might also count].” One reformed cybersexer describes the practice as “emotional cheating.”

Digital-genital contact outside the bounds of marriage feels exciting and daring precisely because it is transgressive. Cybersex may be Adultery Lite, but if it isn’t cheating, how come nobody lets their spouse in on their wonderful new secret?CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Takeshi Tadatsu.